31 July 2014

Just what have Everton, Spurs, and Man U been up to?

In part two of our ongoing, two-part series, we again play the part of nosy neighbors in order to learn just what it is our friends elsewhere have been up to. It's a bit of keeping up with the Joneses, except we want to do much more than keep up with the Joneses. We want to pummel them and leave no doubt in their minds as to where things stand, pecking-order-wise, and to put them back in their rightful places, leaving things crystal-clear, nice and tidy so that there are no unpleasant misunderstandings. Yesterday, we looked at the three clubs that managed to finish above us (in large part, it had to do with out-spending us). Today we'll look at three other clubs with designs on leap-frogging us: Everton, Spurs, and Man U.

Everton, of course, enjoyed a very brief but dangerous spell above us in the waning weeks of the campaign, bouncing back from being bounced from the FA Cup to defeat us and hold onto to fourth, only to fade under the pressures of qualifying for the Champions League for the first time since, well, ever. Despite failing to prove manager Roberto Martinez's bold prediction of doing just that, Everton will play in the Europa League, having finish fifth, seven points behind us. In what ways have they tried to bolster their squad to this point in the transfer-window (set to close 31 August)? Keep in mind, we're focusing here on major or likely-to-be major contributors...

Players in:
  • Romelu Lukaku, centre-forward, Chelsea: £31.2m
  • Muhamded Besic, defensive midfield, Fercencvaros (Hungarian League): £4.2m
  • Gareth Barry, defensive midfield, Man City: free transfer.
Players out:
  • Gerard Deulofeu, winger, Barcelona: end of loan.
It's been an eerily quiet summer thus far for the Toffees, with Lukaku as their only major signing to this point. We know full-well how potentially dangerous he can be. The question that arises is this: will Lukaku thrive or struggle under the price Everton have paid? For the last two seasons, he's played with the relative freedom of being loaned-out. Now, however, he has to earn his keep. He's still just 21, and it will be interesting to see how well he lives up to the expectations of being his club's #1 centre-forward rather than being that chap whose club loaned him out. At a lower level, the arrival of Gareth Barry may lend a more-stabilizing, wizened sense of things, as the no-nonsense 33-year old knows the pressures of playing top-flight football and may lend a steadying hand to a squad otherwise short on battle-tested mettle. On top of that, Martinez will have a season under his belt and that his squad, largely unchanged from last season, will be more-familiar and more-competent with his system and expectations. That's a threat not to be underestimated, even if the new stress of Europa League blunts their Prem ambitions.

On to Spurs. By contrast with last summer, they've been very, very quiet. Once bitten, twice shy, as they saying goes. After bringing in some seven new players and a new manager, it's likely that Spurs have drawn the conclusion that a bit of stability might be a good thing. Indeed, their only significant additions to this point have come from within the Prem, be they players or manager:

Players in:
  • Ben Davies, left-back, Swansea: £11.1m.
  • Michael Vorm, keeperk Swansea: £5.1m.
Players out:
  • Gylfi Sigurdsson, midfield, to Swansea: £8.9m.
  • Jake Livermore, midfield, to Hull: £8.9m.
It's easy to sneer at Spurs. You probably did it each time you saw the word. Spurs. There. Did it again, didn't you? However, their most significant addition won't appear on the pitch: Mauricio Pochettino. The additions of Davies and Vorm look to be back-ups, at best, but Pochettino might be the manager who finally makes good on Spurs' perennial promise to finish above us. He was good enough to guide Southampton to its highest finish since 1990 when they finished 7th in the First Division. Between the departure of Bale, the arrivals of Lamela, Soldado, Paulinho, Eriksen, Capoue,  Chiriches, Chadli, and a few others, and the switch from Villas-Boas to Sherwood, there's been a great of turnover at White Hart Lane, and a lost season of sorts is to be expected. However, like Everton, they may yet benefit from a more-stable approach to things. We'll be counting in Carl Jenkinson, who will face them as a loanee to West Ham, to put an early season dent in their ambitions.

Last, but certainly not least, is Man U. It's a bit odd to ponder just how far they've fallen (their lowest-ever in the Prem) and to heap scorn on the fact that they failed to qualify for European competition in any form for the first time since 1989. They've ben deprived of even Europa League competition thanks to Hull City's qualification via the Tigers' appearance in the FA Cup final. Still, that absence of a European distraction may just their biggest asset as, like Everton and Southampton, they'e been strangely quiet to this point...

Players in:
  • Luke Shaw, left-back, Southampton: £33m.
  • Ander Herrera, attacking midfield, Atletic Bilbao: £31.7m
Players out: 
  • Alex Buttner, left-back, to Dinamo Moscow: £4.9m.
  • Patrice Evra, left-back, to Juventus: £1.3m
  • Rio Ferdinand, centre-back, to QPR: free transfer.
  • Nemanja Vidic, centre-back, to Inter: free transfer.
Truth be told, the list of players exiting Old Trafford would include about 10 other players too young too make meaningful contributions. This, to me, highlights the problem at Old Trafford: too many long in the tooth, too many not yet shaving daily. Yes, Evra, Ferdinand, and Vidic are gone, but those are three Prem-tested warriors you can't simply replace. In their place, Man U have managed to add Luke Shaw, an intriguing player but not one who can single-handedly replace the experience of Evra, Ferdinand, and Vidic. Yes, there is a stable of young, ambitious starlets chomping at the bit to replace them, but few if any are ready to deliver the consistency and tenacity of the departed. As with the 2013-14 season, I'd love to see another season of depressed expectations, led by the increasingly petulant and petty bleatings of the Dutch Skunk, among others (Rooney, I'm looking at you...). I wish we could write off Man U at that and be done with it. 

However, as with Everton and Tottenham, the real story with Man U may lie with the manager. Louis van Gaal is no ingenue. He doesn't strike me as being in over his head as Moyes so often did. Whereas Moyes seemed to play it safe too often, a hold-over from his days with a cash-strapped Everton, van Gaal weds a Dutch, "total football" strategy with Man U's all-too-familiar financial largesse. Suffice it to say that, for as much as we hope to hunt down Man City, Liverpool, or Chelsea, we'll have to keep an eye on those behind us. Man U, perhaps more than Everton or Spurs, will challenge: no European competitions to distract. A legacy to uphold. A manager with a track-record. Financial reserves to exploit.

In any Prem campaign, success or failure sometimes comes down to just a few matches. We'll face these hungry, ambitious squads six times, all told, and our ability to open up a can of whup-ass on them each time might just make the difference between winning the Prem and failing to qualify for spoils as sorry as the Europa League.

Amen.